Man of Steel: Offers Gritty Hope

As we begin November with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, our gaze is moved in a different direction than usual—towards eternity. For my segment with Salt + Light Radio this week, I chose to focus on two films that offer us a larger viewpoint than our usual mundane perspective, a viewpoint based on hope that takes us beyond what we see, hear, and feel in the moment. 

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that Superman on the screen is almost a genre for me—a  favorite genre! I’ve seen just about every live-action depiction of Superman available for the screen, from the original TV series with George Reeves, up till this year’s Man of Steel. The reason that Superman continues to be my favorite super-hero—even though his movies are not always the best-made superhero films—is that he is one of our pop culture’s best representations of a Christ-figure. A spiritual layer of meaning is easy for people of faith to see, and it often seems to be intentionally included in the films. There are many superficial parallels that make Superman a Christ-figure, but some of the essential ones are:

  • He always chooses to do the right thing—or almost always. Even when he makes big mistakes (hello Smallville!) his intentions are always good.
  • He was sent to earth to help humanity discover their dignity and their true identity of greatness; to help humanity find the way to live out of that dignity; and to offer hope.
  • In many screen versions, although Superman fights, his is not a story about violence, nor about might making right. In many of my favorite stories, Superman chooses to resolve the situation without violence, which usually takes greater strength.
  • Above all, Superman’s self-sacrificing love for others makes him a Christ-figure.

This month’s DVD release of Man of Steel has a lot going for it as a gritty version of Superman. As a real Superman aficionado, I truly enjoyed about 75% of the film on the big screen. Very well-cast, the actors give great performances and the characters are well-written: I definitely want to see more of these characters in the next film! I especially enjoyed Henry Cavill as Clark Kent, Amy Adams’s strong and intelligent Lois Lane who is never stupidly blind to Clark’s true identity and is wise enough to keep his secret.

The special effects are excellent and exciting, but the somber color palette of the film helps us hone in on Clark Kent’s lonely struggles: as an outsider, as an alien, as someone “different,” as an adopted child… This grittier version of Superman is appealing and makes his choices all the more heroic. For me, the moral strength of Clark Kent comes from family: not only from his Kryptonian heritage (Russell Crowe was amazing as Jor-El), but particularly from being raised by his earthly parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (also convincingly portrayed by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Man of Steel is very much a father-son film, as we see Clark’s relationship develop with both of his fathers, who offer guidance but do not so much tell Clark what to do as encourage him to make his own choices—to deliberately choose who he is to become.

Without giving away too many spoilers, I was hugely disappointed at the end of the film. Act Three is primarily made up of a way-too-long, gratuitously violent and repetitive super-fight between Superman and super-villain Zod, where it seems that half the city is destroyed. (Did the people in the skyscrapers really have a chance to get away before the fight started, and how is Superman so clueless about the destruction he is causing in a metropolis? But that’s more of a background detail I can overlook.) My big disappointment is that Superman makes a moral choice that I feel contradicts his true nature and calling. In a way, the blame falls on the screenwriters for not allowing Superman to come up with a third solution to the either/or dilemma he faced. So the ending—which becomes somewhat predictable—was really spoiled  for me. And without a strong ending, the entire film is compromised, and this screen version of Superman is no longer as  compelling of a Christ-figure.

Nevertheless, with its strong direction by Zack Snyder, absorbing development of so many of the characters (both in the writing and performances), and the humanizing approach to Superman, this film offers much to think about. I remain hopeful that the next Superman movie—for there will be one—will better reflect  Superman’s true nature and the blazing hope that he offers to humanity. Rated PG-13 in the US and  PG in Canada, due to the violence—even if it’s comic-book violence—Man of Steel is a film for older kids and adults.

The second film that offers a hope-filled perspective couldn’t be more different from Man of Steel. For my commentary on Terrence Malick’s beautiful To the Wonder, check back for my next post.

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